The N.F.C. West Has Highlights and Stars. But Can it Contend?
The N.F.C. West has produced the last two conference champions, consists of three teams with 6-3 records, is home to top candidates for the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards, has provided some of the most memorable moments of the 2020 season — and is not really all that good.
The Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are all fun-but-flawed teams with inflated records. Three of them are hoping that a smattering of superstars can carry them into the N.F.L. playoffs. (With many of the stars of last year’s Super Bowl run on injured reserve, the 49ers are more medical drama than football team at this point.) None appear to be deep, balanced or consistent enough to reach the championship game this season.
The Seahawks threatened to run away with the division when they opened the season with five straight high-scoring victories, including several against self-destructive opponents like the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. Quarterback Russell Wilson made the most salient case of the field to win the M.V.P. award when he threw 19 touchdown passes in those five games. But Wilson has thrown seven interceptions in his last four outings, three of which were losses. The Seahawks are waiting for someone to step up to take some of the burden off Wilson. They’ve been waiting since roughly 2015.
The Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII and became perennial contenders by finding and developing overlooked prospects like Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman (now part of the 49ers’ star-studded injury list) in the early 2010s drafts. Unfortunately, this convinced Coach Pete Carroll and General Manager John Schneider that they were alchemists who could transform any late-round selection into gold, so the Seahawks spent the latter half of the previous decade drafting projects and punters instead of addressing their ever-increasing needs.
Neglectful draft noodling has both held Wilson back and depleted the once-mighty Seahawks defense. Jamal Adams, acquired from the Jets in exchange for two first-round draft picks this off-season, is now expected to do the work of several defenders by himself. When Adams drops into coverage, opposing quarterbacks have no fear of the feeble Seahawks pass rush. When Adams blitzes, screen passes turn into 30-yard gains against a short-handed secondary.
The Cardinals were upgraded from plucky playoff hopefuls to legitimate contenders on Sunday when wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins outleapt three Buffalo Bills defenders to snag a last-second game-winning touchdown pass from Kyler Murray, a play which has been ecumenically christened the “Hail Murray.”
The Cardinals also supplanted the Seahawks as the N.F.L. team most likely to win with late-game quarterback heroics — and solely late-game quarterback heroics — in their last meeting, a 37-34 overtime Cardinals victory in Week 7. That game featured Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf chasing Cardinals safety Budda Baker the length of the field and tackling him from behind to prevent an interception-return touchdown, a highlight which has since become a popular political metaphor and meme in some circles.
The last five minutes of any Cardinals game are appointment viewing, but the first 55 often consist of Murray waiting for a software update on his targeting system to install while Coach Kliff Kingsbury calls Rube Goldberg-contraption misdirection plays that result in two-yard gains. The Cardinals lost to the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers earlier in the season, two teams with a combined 7-12 current record, a sign that they are not ready to prevail in a playoff tournament.
The Rams narrowly lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII in the 2018 season and have been coasting to a stop ever since. Coach Sean McVay’s offense purrs like a precision-tuned engine until a speck of dust gets into the mechanism. Quarterback Jared Goff looks like Joe Montana so long as his pocket is as clean as a surgical theater. The recent loss of the veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth to a knee injury will require both McVay and Goff to improvise, which they do about as well as a 200-piece marching band. Meanwhile, the Rams’ top-heavy payroll has them fielding a defense consisting of the All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey and lots of no-names and reclamation projects.
The Rams are 4-0 against opponents from the N.F.C. East — the N.F.L.’s notorious skid row district — but just 3-3 against opponents with any pride or dignity. The secret of the N.F.C. West’s success is that each team gets to face all four N.F.C. East tackling dummies, plus the Jets, meaning that five likely victories are baked into each of their schedules. The Seahawks face the Philadelphia Eagles, Giants, Jets and Washington Football Team down the stretch, which could launch them to the top of the divisional pack whether they deserve it or not.
No matter how gaudy their records by season’s end, none of the N.F.C. West challengers appear built to defeat the conference’s Super Bowl favorites. Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers could easily shred the Seahawks defense. Any decent pass rush can turn Goff into a turnover dispensary. Last-minute highlights are not a sustainable formula for playoff success. All of the N.F.C. West teams remain a draft class, some credit repair or months of injury rehabilitation away from being truly great.
But if all you want from November football are some highlights, big names and plot twists, there is no better division in the N.F.L.
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